I remember lying down in a curtained off square in the Emergency Room and listening as the person next to me fought for his life. Or it could have been her life. He or she was unconscious. My ER neighbor was another suicide case and the only thing I know about him or her is that the pills I took were less deadly than the pills he or she took. I swallowed 25 or 26 orange oval antidepressants with most of a fifth of cheap vodka. Those were just the pills I had in a drawer. My neighbor took something with aspirin. What I didn’t know before that night in the ER is that the pills you can take for a headache, that you can buy from a convenience store, can shred your kidneys and kill you if you take too many while the antidepressant pills I was prescribed by a bored doctor after a five minute screening will just make you sleep for sixteen hours if you take them with a charcoal chaser. I think a lot about what would have happened if I had different pills in my drawer that night.
It’s been almost exactly fourteen years since the night I tried to kill myself. I stayed in the Johnson Unit, a dedicated mental health corner of Sacred Heart Hospital a few blocks away from the University of Oregon, for the weekend. They put me in these powder blue grippy sock slippers and had me participate in group therapy sessions with suicidal teens and dried out broken down drunks. The first day I was in an overdose haze. I was fuzzy and empty. I shuffled around overlit halls and sat in front of a television with a half dozen other patients watching something incomprehensible. I didn’t know how to comprehend who I was and what I’d done. I didn’t know how to comprehend what would happen next. I remember that no one in the Johnson Unit that weekend was had taken an overdose of aspirin. I don’t know what happened to my suicide twin. I never found out.
Eventually, I had to start seeing visitors and I had to tell family out of town what had happened. I had to call them and tell them on the phone what I’d done. Those were the worst phone calls I’ve ever made. I remember all of their fear and the surprise and hurt after I explained it. I remember that however low I felt, however weak and lost I’d been before taking those pills, it was worse after I had to say it out loud. But, after I said it, after I admitted it to myself and to everyone else how bad it had gotten, it got a little bit better. I had so many friends come to see me all at once that they didn’t have room in the regular visiting room. My mom brought me a bacon cheeseburger. She hugged me and we both cried and shook. By the end of the weekend I wasn’t cured of clinical depression but I thought that maybe I could be.
For me, the worst part of mental illness is how isolating it can feel, how silent and ashamed it makes me. When I was in fifth grade my mom attempted suicide for the first time I know about. She had a history with alcoholism and different psychiatric diagnoses. She spent her 40th birthday in a state mental health hospital. We visited with cake a stuffed bear. She told us how she’d escaped the hospital and found a bottle of whiskey in a barn before they found her and brought her back. My mother’s problems, screaming unintelligible madness from the floor of her bathroom, drinking bottles of wine alone, getting committed the day after my 10th birthday party, and telling me horrific and detailed stories of her childhood abuse while we sat on the edge of her queen sized bed, were secrets that no one had to tell me to keep. They were secrets I carried with me at elementary school while we talked about Greek gods and goddesses, while we learned long division, and how to diagram sentences. The kind of sickness she had, something like a suicide attempt was a foreseeable outcome but I was a kid and I couldn’t tell anyone that could have done anything. It hit me like an asteroid coming out of the clear blue sky.
She took pills with wine, similar to what I would do ten years later. That day she called in sick to work but I just thought she had a cold. I got home from school that day and she was locked in her bedroom, quiet. I left her alone for a little while and watched some television before I realized something was really wrong. I pounded on her door and shouted and she didn’t answer. I managed to climb up the outside of the house to her bedroom window and got it open. She was asleep and I couldn’t wake her up. I called the neighbors and they called 911. The ambulance arrived just as my older brother was getting off the bus from high school. A lot of people made a lot of phone calls. My grandparents came down from Seattle to take care of us for a couple of weeks while my mom recovered. My grandmother took me aside in the hallway outside of my mom’s room at the hospital. She told me that my mom didn’t really mean to die because if she had she would have done something worse. That didn’t make me feel better and the question that it suggested lived inside of me for years making me angrier and sadder the more I thought about it; if she didn’t want to die, what did she want?
October has a tendency to make me sad. My trip to the Johnson Unit was over the weekend before Halloween. Some of my friends that came to see me came in costume before heading off to a costume party. For the first few years after it happened I would take out my handwritten suicide note and re-read it on the anniversary date. I would read those six pages of stream of consciousness as I slowly built up to my overdose and I would try to remember all of it. I stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom that night and told myself I didn’t really mean it. I stared into my own eyes and told myself I was bluffing. I was so angry and so lonely and so hopeless. In the weeks leading up to that night, suicide had been growing inside of me like a weed. I told people I was thinking about it. I wrote stories about it. I was calling out for help but it just ended up sounding like a Nine Inch Nails song. When I got that antidepressant prescription and when I got the vodka some part of me knew what I was going to do. I used to revisit all of that like a somber trip to a graveyard every year so that I would never forget it and so that I would never fall into that again. Eventually, that night stopped being an anniversary event and just became part of my life. I still have the note though. It’s in a shoebox somewhere in the basement. I keep it like old photographs. I keep it like a totem. I have to admit that I’m afraid to get rid of it.
I used to go this group for teenagers with mentally ill parents when I was in middle school. For an hour on a semi-weekly basis I could talk openly about my family’s secrets. I could talk about my mom’s symptoms, about the side effects of her medication. She used to sleep all day and when she was awake her jaw would move nervously. I could talk about how lonely it was to keep all that secret. Even as I went off to college and started dating I used to obsess about how long I could know someone before I could trust them enough to tell them about my mom, and, eventually, about my brother, and finally, about me. I had this girlfriend the summer before my suicide attempt. My mom had a serious relapse into alcoholism and called to tell me she was thinking about hurting herself again one day. After she noticed I was upset, I told my girlfriend and she told me she couldn’t handle hearing about it. That was more devastating than my mom’s latest breakdown. When I was able to talk about my family or about any of my own serious problems, I had to joke about it or keep it vague so people didn’t get uncomfortable. I never wanted to be the weird kid that bummed everyone out at the party.
Even my family never wanted to talk about it. When I would write stories that were partially autobiographical my brother would read them and say, “these are good – but I wish you wouldn’t just dwell on the past.” I don’t know how we could ever dwell on something that we all did our best to pretend wasn’t happening. Even as my older brother descended into a serious twenty year cycle of addiction, my mom couldn’t or wouldn’t see the extent of it. My brother came home for Christmas one year and started to detox from heroin on Christmas Day. He was crippled with it, bent over and wracked with it, sweating and hurting and bedridden, until he left back for Portland on a bus in a hurry so he could score and get himself right again. We didn’t talk about it. How could we?
I don’t need a lot of help to remember and reflect on events like these but social media seems really interested in helping me anyway. I got reminders over the weekend that it’s been three years since the last time my mom attempted suicide. Saved on the cloud are my frantic terrified updates after she emailed me that she was going to take an overdose of morphine (saved in my email: “I just took a bunch of my morphine and I will finish it soon. Goodby Erik.” ) and the half hour that followed while I tried from more than a hundred miles away to find out what was happening. “I’m losing my fucking my mind. My mother emailed me saying she’s taking an overdose of morphine. she’s in Eugene. The fire department and paramedics are on the way. All I can do is wait… LOSING IT,” I posted. Then: “20 minutes. Oh God. Oh my god.” And finally before getting ahold of my then-girlfriend and now-wife to drive me down to the hospital, “Ok. Ok ok ok ok . Just heard. she’s on the way to the hospital. she took a bunch of pills… she was walking around – they can probably get her stomach pumped. FUCK” Was this going to be the time she really meant it? How could I know?
Over this past weekend I spent some time with people I care about a lot but don’t know really well yet. I listened to a recitation of addictions and personal failures and family secrets I probably should have guessed about but hadn’t. For a long time I believed that my mother’s sickness, a sickness shared by several other members of her family, was a rare errant virus. I believed that most families were happy and healthy and mine was the weird one. With the limited wisdom and experience I’ve gained with my own struggles through depression and out the other side and after talking to a lot of people about their lives and families, I think addiction and mental illness aren’t mythological beasts that only party with the skeletons in my closet but they’re out there in most families. I know and love a lot of alcoholics, addicts, and the mentally ill, ones that are clean or stable and ones that sometimes aren’t. We’re more normal that we think we are. The shame and the silence is the worst part of these diseases. What would it be like if we could just talk about all of it and be there for each other without the stigma? Why did those phone calls from the Johnson Unit feel worse than finishing the last sentence in my suicide note?
I’m not an alcoholic or an addict and I haven’t had struggles with clinical depression for more than ten years but that could change. I’m not a better person now than I was fourteen years ago. I’m just alive and happy and doing my very best every single day. I have hundreds of hours of counseling, years of new coping skills, and a fiercely loyal network of friends and family that I rely on when I feel that empty numbness and that sadness and anger. I still feel ashamed of it. I still feel afraid to talk openly about it.
My grandmother, the one that took my brother and I up to her house in Seattle back when I was in fifth grade after that first pill overdose, passed away the same week my mom sent me that email. It was an argument about my grandmother’s funeral service that precipitated my mom’s actions that night. I look for patterns in things and overthink them looking for meaning. That same week, I also finished writing a novel, watched Obama and Romney debate, noted what would have been the second anniversary of my first marriage half a year after we split up, had a predictably terrible argument with my brother, and was in the groom’s party for one of my best friend’s wedding. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the meaning of all those events crowded into less than seven days. I got drunk at the wedding, first to celebrate and then just to keep myself together, a self-destructive coping mechanism I learned young and often. When I got too drunk to dance, I went outside into the cool October night and cried out on the deck of the wedding venue. My girlfriend held my hand and listened while I said all of the silent shameful terrible truths I’ve parsed out so carefully for so long. All that fear and the ocean of grief. A ten year old kid crying the day the ambulance came, a twenty-one year old man confused and grateful that he found the safer pills. I felt so powerless against more than twenty years of it crashing down on me while they danced inside. I didn’t know what my mother meant to do if she didn’t mean to die. I didn’t know what I meant to do. The night of my overdose I called my mother at work. I cackled an angry demon laugh, a hurt, furious, fucked up child laugh, and told her exactly what I’d done. I wanted to hurt myself and I wanted to hurt her too. I didn’t know why she couldn’t be better when I was a kid. I didn’t know why I couldn’t be as a man. It all came spilling out from my drunk blubbering mouth, confessing to a woman I knew I had fallen in love with and didn’t want to lose. After I was done, after I said it all out loud, we went back inside and danced some more.
It felt better.
Author’s Note: This essay is read and discussed in depth in this week’s Rough Draft Out Loud podcast. Please visit http://www.roughdraftoutloud.com to listen.